Posted by: structureofnews | September 11, 2010

The Architecture of the Mind

Ellen Page’s character in Inception has the coolest job: She’s the Architect, tasked with designing the various landscapes and worlds that her teammates will inhabit and explore in their shared dream.   For anyone who’s ever wanted to design games or invent worlds – and I did – it doesn’t get much better than that.

This comes up as a result of a couple of posts I’ve been reading – one at the Future of Context about how we should try to get news sites to include more incentives – ala gameplay – for people to follow news:

A person follows the Topic Barack Obama in 2005 to earn 5 points. When Obama announces presidential candidacy he’s worth 10, 20 when he gets the nomination and as president, perhaps 40. Or… make it a business: points are worth cents.  Either way, the system rewards users for being “in-the-know.” Users could also get points when the read the updates to a Topic, or assist in crowdsourcing, or post a popular comment, or share a topic.
It’s about incentive

Another here on much the same idea, that we don’t do enough to build an online community where information and news is a valued good/product; and finally a 2007 TechCrunch piece by Susan Wu explaining the success and proliferation of virtual goods, which she describes as “graphical metaphors for packaging up behaviors that people are already engaging in.”

This got me to thinking more about the structure we impose/offer readers/users of news and information: Narrative, of course, has well-hewn paths that many of us understand, even if only unconsciously.  We don’t spew a ton of words and facts in no particular order; we don’t even really follow the inverted pyramid structure, except for the most basic of stories.  We tease readers in; we use suspense to keep them going; build and develop characters that they want to follow; work in final “kickers” that circle back to the start of the story and close off a tale nicely; and so on.

Movies, documentaries, photo slide shows, animations, newscasts,  newspapers – they all have established rhythms and structures intended to make using them immersive experiences.   The better websites do too, but not generally news sites.  And even less so database-driven sites.

And if we’re to make exploring for information a more desirable, immersive and enjoyable experience, we need to think more about that narrative flow/architecture of the entire site – not just of any individual item or story – that keeps and draws people in.

Game designers are proficient at this, of course; they build worlds that we want to explore and, for want of a better term, earn “merit” in by engaging in quests, tasks or other activities.

I’m not suggesting that we overload news sites with tricked-out games – Fight the Iraq War!  Manage the Presidential Campaign! – but rather that we think more about how people react to tasks, targets, community and the general lure of exploration.   Facebook and Twitter, without being explicit about it, encourage users to deepen engagement by providing feedback on how many friends or followers they have.  You don’t get points for being the most friend-ed, but it certainly gives some people a sense of satisfaction.  Adam Penenberg at NYU documents some of these hooks in his book Viral Loop.

Perhaps news sites – and I’m thinking more about news databases than pure news sites – need more of this kind of thinking in their design:  Not just feedback that builds “scores” or status, but simply offer more information on how much users have explored so far, or what may lie ahead – a virtual map of the landscape, say.  Positing questions or “quests” that can help direct users to look for information they may not have known they wanted; developing ways to bring suspense to discovering more information or connections; tiering the complexity of use as people build more familiarity with the information, in the same way that gamers progress from level to level; and other techniques.

I’m no expert on games – and it’s been a while since I played one – but I suspect there’s much we can learn from game designers on how to build and keep an audience.

At its best (and worst, if you have a day job), being immersed in a great game world unlocks what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow“:  A state of “optimal experience.”  It’s that point where you lose track of time and are totally engrossed in an activity.

OK, so maybe it’s too much to expect that anyone will be diving through 20 years of GDP statistics in quite the same way; but if we can write stories and books that are page-turners that keep people up all night, why can’t we invest the same kind of energy in building interfaces that make hard-earned data – and databases of stories – equally engrossing?  Then we can have as much fun as Ellen Page creating worlds.



  1. Interesting the game, the reward, the badge…is there a way to use a avid community of readers to help structure the content? Adding tags, identifying dates, names, places, story elements?

    Thank you for your input you have just achieved “cub reporter status”… But the game will require more thought about value and the content meat grinder that is the newsroom.

  2. […] to draw readers/users more deeply into the news experience.   It’s an area well-worth exploring – we all understand how immersive a well-designed game can be (or at least those of us who […]

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